The Transformative Power of Optimism


How one community foundation helped turn tragedy into triumph

One of the “50-Mule Team”

One of the “50-Mule Team” sponsored by the Walker County Arts Alliance

How many communities can mark a watershed event as a literal turning point? For Walker County, a predominantly rural collective of 14 towns in northwest Alabama, that event was the same cluster of tornadoes that devastated nearby Tuscaloosa April 27, 2011. 

Paul KennedyPaul Kennedy

In the aftermath, remembers Paul Kennedy, President of the Walker Area Community Foundation, “People were looking for leadership. We already had the resources, and now we’d been handed the political capital to address a long-growing sense in the area that we could do better than the status quo.” (In recent years, Kennedy notes as an aside, community foundations have been increasingly called upon for disaster response leadership.)

The Walker Area Community Foundation used its newfound influence to produce the 2015 strategic plan that will ultimately impact nearly every aspect of Walker County’s quality of life, a plan that’s enjoyed widespread support, in part, because it came largely from the community itself. “Sure, we had a lot of ideas at the Foundation, but we wanted to hear from as many different people as possible. So we held a series of town hall meetings, during which we asked two simple questions: ‘What’s good about Walker County?’ and ‘What would you like to see improved?’” 

What’s good about Walker County?

Among the more than 500 attendees of eight meetings, the top responses were as follows: 1) A beautiful place with an abundance of natural resources. 2) Great neighbors. 3) Good schools. 4) Well-positioned for growth, with the nearby Interstate.

What would you like to see improved?

The top responses were as follows:

  1. More places to enjoy the outdoors.
  2. A better image — both internally and externally.
  3. Greater cooperation between the towns.

While The Plan For Walker County will take years to fully implement, Kennedy takes pride in one of the earliest outcomes of the Foundation’s initiative: “The mayors of our towns now regularly sit down at the same table to talk. Our pitch to them was simple: ‘You all have shared experiences, and a common goal to improve life in your communities. Together, let’s explore how we [the Foundation] can help you identify opportunities to advance local objectives while strengthening the entire community.’”

Positive action, visible results

That spirit of cooperation has produced everything from two towns sharing one garbage truck to a master plan for parks across four cities — each offering attractions complementary to the other three.

Signs of progress, directly and indirectly related to the plan, are evident throughout the county — from a 2016 rebranding campaign whose celebratory public premiere drew a significant percentage of the community’s residents, to the ongoing resurgence of downtown Jasper (Walker County’s largest city) as a magnet for new business, restaurants, and entertainment venues. Recent economic development successes have generated over $150 million in capital investment from the automotive industry alone.

And yes, Kennedy would like to think, the people of Walker County are feeling better about themselves. “But then,” he smiles, “that’s what you get when you live, work, and play in the center of the universe.”